What Does Moderate Exercise Mean, Anyway?

An expert’s explanation — and examples

If you talk to a doctor or read physical fitness guidelines, you’re going to come across the phrase “moderate-intensity exercise.”

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It’s one of the guiding principles behind fitness recommendations. But patients often are left wondering: What does moderate really mean?

Examples — something for everyone

In the exercise world, we think of moderate-intensity activity as anything that gets your heart rate up to 50 to 60 percent higher than its rate when you are at rest.

Different groups — from the American Heart Association to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have slightly different recommendations. But in general, they advise 150 minutes per week (that’s 30 minutes five days a week) of moderate-intensity activity.

“In the exercise world, we think of moderate-intensity activity as anything that gets your heart rate up to 50 to 60 percent higher than its rate when you are at rest.”

Christopher Travers, MS

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Cleveland Clinic Sports Health and Cleveland Clinic Executive Health

What does that activity look like? You have plenty of options. All of the following fit the “moderate” definition of exercise:

  • Walking two miles in 30 minutes
  • Biking five miles in 30 minutes
  • Swimming laps for 20 minutes
  • Running one and a half miles in 15 minutes
  • Doing water aerobics for 30 minutes
  • Playing volleyball for 45 minutes
  • Playing pick-up basketball for 20 minutes
  • Jumping rope for 15 minutes
  • Walking stairs for 15 minutes

There’s a lot of variety on that list, and it’s just a sample. Plus, other activities you might not even think of as exercise fit the “moderate” definition:

  • Washing your car for 45 minutes to an hour
  • Gardening for 30 to 45 minutes
  • Raking leaves for 30 minutes
  • Dancing for 30 minutes

You’ll notice all of the durations on the list are more than 10 minutes at a time. That’s because 10 minutes is the minimum amount of time you need to get the benefits of cardiovascular exercise. I often tell patients to start with 10 to 20 minutes of any activity and work your way up. If you’ve been living a sedentary life, or if you have medical conditions that limit your activity, you need to ease yourself into fitness and see how your body responds.

You’ll also notice that all of the above are cardiovascular exercises. When you’re crafting an overall fitness plan, be sure to incorporate strength training, too.

Heart rate DIY

Want a simple way to tell if you’re in the moderate zone? Use the “talk test.” When exercising at moderate intensity, you should be able to talk to others without gasping for air. Speaking will take a little more effort than usual, but you should be able to carry on a conversation.

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However, if you want to be more scientific, you can start by defining your resting heart rate. Do this by taking your pulse when you first wake up in the morning.

Doctors and exercise specialists use the “Karvonen formula” to figure out your target heart rate for exercise. It’s a bit complicated, but if you’re interested in trying for yourself, it goes like this:

  • Subtract your age from 220 to get your maximum heart rate.
  • Next, subtract your resting heart rate from your maximum heart rate.
  • Multiply that number by your percentage of training intensity. Then add your resting heart rate to get your target heart rate.

Here’s an example: A 50-year-old woman has a resting heart rate of 70. She wants to exercise at 50 percent intensity — the low end of the moderate intensity range of 50 to 60 percent. The formula looks like this:

  • 220-50=170 (maximum heart rate)
  • 170-70=100
  • (100×50 percent)+70=120 (target heart rate)

Here’s the truth: I never want complicated math to scare you away from exercise. If you are interested in using formulas and heart rate monitors, I encourage their use. A doctor or exercise specialist can even help you get started. But if you prefer to skip the math and just incorporate the exercises above or others into your life — and you’re healthy enough to do so — you are still on the right track.

What matters most is that you get moving.

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Christopher Travers, MS

Christopher Travers, MS, is an exercise physiologist on staff for both Cleveland Clinic Sports Health and Cleveland Clinic Executive Health.
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